Graphene has been in the news a lot recently, described as a miracle material with superlative properties. But what is graphene and why does it matter?

Researchers from Manchester University claim that they have made a breakthrough in research into graphene that could radicly change the way computer processors are designed and built. This comes hard on the heels of UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne promising £50m for research into the possibilities of graphene, but that may leave many readers wondering what is so special about graphene, a material many may have heard of only recently.

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Graphene: what's happened?

The Manchester University researchers say that they have successfuly laid together into four layers atom-thick graphene and boron nitride. This graphene and boron nitride lasagne insulates the graphene making it easy for the researchers to study and use. This is important because in order to make a processor from any material, you have to insulate it against outside factors such as humidity and cross-contamination with other chemicals.

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Graphene: why it matters

Carbon is the stuff of which all life is made, and graphene is a very thin, very strong carbon-based material. In fact it is a single layer of graphite, discovered by Professor Andre Geim and Dr Kostya Novoselov when they used sticky tape to pull off the thinnest layer possible. It is extremely strong but incredibly thin, in part because of its hexagonal structure. In fact, it is a lattice of hexagons, each vertex tipped with a carbon atom (its molecules have been described as looking like 'chickenwire').

This makes it a very promising tool for constructing computer parts and in particular processors. Smaller, thinner materials ultimately make for better, less power intensive performance. However, graphene is highly sensitive to atmospheric conditions such as humidity, hence the potential breakthrough achieved by the Manchester researchers who say that they should have more definitive results in another year.

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